Road Test Review
Since its relaunch for 2014, Indian has struck a balance between honoring the past and looking to the future. Its first few models — the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage and Chieftain — had skirted fenders and an air-cooled V-twin with downward-firing exhausts that evoked nostalgia for Indians your father or grandfather used to ride. But when it brought back the Scout for 2015, it broke from cruiser tradition and gave it a high-revving, liquid-cooled V-twin. And last year Indian introduced the FTR 1200 street tracker with a high-performance engine and optional rider-assistance electronics.
Indian has also renewed its head-to-head competition with Harley-Davidson, reigniting a fierce rivalry waged on racetracks, at factories and in dealerships during the first half of the 20th century. Indian ended Harley’s decades-long dominance of flat track with consecutive AFT Twins championships in 2017-2019, and no doubt a sizable portion of Indian’s sales over the past few years have come at Harley’s expense.
Now Indian has introduced a new model for 2020 whose name makes its intentions clear: Challenger. Its big, beating heart is the all-new liquid-cooled PowerPlus 108, a 1,768cc (108ci) V-twin that makes a claimed 128 lb-ft of torque and 122 horsepower. Indian’s air-cooled Thunder Stroke 111/116 V-twin has powered all of its heavyweight baggers and tourers. Rather than implement partial liquid cooling like Harley-Davidson did with its Twin-Cooled Milwaukee-Eight V-twin and BMW did with its R-series boxer twin, Indian decided to go all-in with liquid cooling for the PowerPlus. It didn’t have to go far for inspiration. Indian’s middleweight Scouts are powered by a liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-twin with DOHC and 4 valves per cylinder, and the PowerPlus has the same engine configuration and number of valves but uses a SOHC head.
Indian says the PowerPlus “was developed with a big-piston, big-torque mindset with an end game of maximum power delivery across the entire curve.” When we put the Challenger on Jett Tuning’s dyno, its belt-driven rear wheel cranked out 113.3 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm and 107.6 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, with redline at 6,500 rpm (see chart below). That unseats the previous king of torque among V-twin tourers we’ve tested, the Yamaha Star Venture (110.9 lb-ft of torque, 75.9 horsepower), as well as the top-of-the-line Harley-Davidson CVO Limited (110.0 lb-ft of torque, 96.0 horsepower). The Challenger’s broad mountain of rear-wheel torque tops 100 lb-ft from 2,400 to 5,600 rpm, and its horsepower curve increases steadily from 2,000 rpm to its peak.
The PowerPlus 108 gets the job done with an oversquare bore and stroke of 108.0 x 96.5mm, an 11.0:1 compression ratio and dual-bore 52mm throttle bodies that take big gulps of fuel and air. It has a unit crankcase with a semi-dry oil sump, overhead camshafts with hydraulic chain tensioners and valves with hydraulic lash adjusters. Power is sent to the rear wheel through a 6-speed constant-mesh transmission with an overdrive top gear and a cable-actuated wet assist clutch.
In the world of baggers and tourers, there are two distinct camps: those with fork-mounted fairings, like Indian’s Chieftain and Harley-Davidson’s Street Glide, and those with fixed or frame-mounted fairings, like Indian’s Challenger and Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide. By taking weight off the handlebar and fork, motorcycles with frame-mounted fairings require less steering effort than those with fork-mounted fairings. Our road test of the Challenger, which included hundreds of miles and countless tight, technical corners along California’s Big Sur coast, demonstrated just how agile and well balanced an 848-pound bagger can be.
Hidden beneath the Challenger’s 6-gallon tank is a modular aluminum backbone frame similar to the one on the Chieftain (they share the same wheelbase and rake/trail figures), but rather than straight downtubes the Challenger’s flare out and are sculpted to wrap around the radiator like they are on the Scout’s frame. Indian’s stout aluminum chassis, which share a significant amount of DNA with the frames that contributed to the impressive handling of Victory’s big touring models, feel rock solid.
Pushing hard on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a 25-mile twisting goat path that climbs over the Santa Lucia Range and puts any motorcycle’s handling to the test, the Challenger never lost its cool. With a non-adjustable 43mm upside-down fork with 5.1 inches of travel, a preload-adjustable hydraulic Fox rear shock with 4.5 inches of travel and 31 degrees of cornering clearance, the footboards rarely touched down and the ride was responsive, taut and comfortable. The Challenger rolls on 19-/16-inch cast wheels shod with Metzeler Cruisetec tires, and a pair of big 320mm front rotors clamped by 4-piston Brembo monoblock radial provide ample stopping power, though they could use more initial bite. New for 2020 is what Indian calls Smart Lean Technology, which uses a Bosch IMU to enable cornering ABS and traction control (TC can be turned off but ABS cannot) as well as Drag Torque Control.
A big bagger like the Challenger will spend most of its time cruising at a more modest pace on less taxing roads, and it excels in such an environment. The PowerPlus 108 not only delivers right-now torque for rapid acceleration, its liquid-cooled design also means much less heat radiates into the cockpit, eliminating our biggest complaint about the air-cooled Thunder Stroke. Even with liquid cooling, though, the PowerPlus offers rear cylinder deactivation at stops to further reduce heat from the exhaust header beneath the rider’s right thigh. Throttle-by-wire enables electronic cruise control as well as three riding modes—Sport, Standard and Rain—that adjust throttle response.
As much as we appreciate the Challenger’s performance and handling, what delivers the mail in this segment is style, sound and comfort. The Challenger’s snout-forward, wide-mouth fairing was clearly inspired by the Road Glide’s sharknose fairing — both even have closable vents on either side of the headlight that bring fresh air into the cockpit — but the Indian sets itself apart with LED running lights/turn signals that bracket the headlight, an electrically adjustable windscreen with a 3-inch range and a dashboard that’s much closer to the rider. The Challenger offers good wind protection, a supportive seat with a high rear bolster, rubber-mounted footboards and enormous top-loading saddlebags with remote locking (total storage capacity, including two small fairing pockets, is 18 gallons, or 68 liters).
There are three versions of the Challenger. Standard equipment on the base model ($21,999), which is available in Titanium Metallic only, includes ABS, keyless ignition with remote saddlebag locks and the Ride Command infotainment system with a 7-inch customizable color touchscreen and a 100-watt audio system. The Challenger Dark Horse ($27,499-$28,249), which is available in several matte colors with blacked-out finishes, adds Smart Lean Technology, navigation, a customizable route builder, connected weather and traffic services and contrast-cut wheels with tire-pressure monitoring. The Challenger Limited ($27,999-$28,749) we tested is available in several metallic colors and adds color-matched fender closeouts and highway bars.
Even though the larger air-cooled Thunder Stroke 116 was also introduced for 2020, satisfying customer demands for more torque while also edging out Harley’s Milwaukee-Eight 114 by a couple of cubic inches, the PowerPlus 108 is the engine that will take Indian’s heavyweight models into the future. It offers the performance, comfort and lower emissions that only liquid cooling can provide, and in the Challenger it delivers impressive grunt and smoothness without giving up the rumbling character that makes a V-twin the most popular type of engine among American motorcyclists. That plus muscular, modern style, an excellent chassis, a full range of available technology, generous wind protection and luggage capacity and plenty of long-haul comfort make the Challenger one heckuva bagger. We look forward to seeing how it stacks up against the competition.